Crime of the century

By Gareth Renowden 02/11/2010

Dealing with global warming is difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible. What we need to do is well understood. Yet a campaign to prevent and delay emissions reductions, which began in the 1980s almost as soon as science began warning there might be a problem, has been so successful that two decades later it seems that substantive action, the sorts of cuts required to leave us with a planet we can recognise, are impossible to put in place.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the people who coordinate and run that campaign are morally and ethically bankrupt (I’m being polite), but are they also criminally liable for the damage their actions will undoubtedly cause? Donald Brown, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University, discusses the issue in a recent article: A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change. Brown points out that the issue is much more than just a matter of science, it has moral and ethical dimensions:

As long as there is any chance that climate change could create this type of destruction, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that these harms are not yet fully proven, disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily morally reprehensible if it leads to non-action in reducing climate change’s threat when action is indispensable to preventing harm. In fact how to deal with uncertainty in climate change science is an ethical issue, not only a scientific matter, because in the case of climate change:

  • If you wait until all the uncertainties are resolved it is likely to be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change.
  • The longer one waits to take action, the more difficult it is to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of climate change at safe levels.
  • Those most vulnerable to climate change include some of the poorest people in the world and they have not consented to be put at risk in the face of uncertainty.

Brown cites a New York Times article which concludes that:

…the oil, coal and utility industries have collectively spent $500 million just since the beginning of 2009 to lobby against legislation to address climate change and to defeat candidates who support actions to reduce the threat of climate change.

The extent to which this is a carefully coordinated campaign was underlined by a recent Think Progress report on a meeting of “titans of industry — from health insurance companies, oil executives, Wall Street investors, and real estate tycoons — working together with conservative journalists and Republican operatives” held in Aspen last June, organised by the Koch brothers. Climate denial and its relevance to the US elections (underway as I write) was on the agenda (pdf):

Energy and Climate: What drives the regulatory assault on energy? What are the economic and political consequences of this? How discredited is the climate change argument? What effect does this have on the electorate, especially in key states. [my emphasis]

From the outside looking in, could I be forgiven for thinking that the Koch brothers and their friends have remade US conservatism in their own image, and made it serve their interests above all others? The self-interest of billionaires has shaped the catechism of the new right, put the tea in the parties, and it’s hard to see how any Republican leader can now advocate strong action on emissions — for purely domestic political reasons.

But this is not just a US domestic issue, as Brown explains.

It would be one thing for an American corporation to act irresponsibly in a way that leads to harm to Americans, but because of climate change’s global scope, American corporations have been involved in behaviour that likely will harm tens of millions of people around the world. Clearly this is a new type of crime against humanity.

I find it hard to disagree. At some point, when the damages from climate change are severe and undeniable, there will be a backlash against those who deliberately made matters worse. It might be purely a legal affair, with lawyers fattening themselves on cases seeking billions of dollars of damages, but it might equally be a more visceral matter, with US standing in the world suffering as countries bearing the brunt of climate change react against the people, companies and political system that sealed their fate. Global change has global repercussions, and the US will not be insulated from that.

Brown goes on to consider the role of skeptics:

Skepticism in science is not bad, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not make claims that are not substantiated by the peer-reviewed literature. The need for responsible skepticism is particularly urgent if misinformation from skeptics could lead to great harm.

The idea of “responsible scepticism” is something I’ve considered before but have never attempted to define, but it’s clear from Brown’s view on how it should be conducted that it would be greatly different to the approach adopted by the Moncktons Plimers, Wisharts, Carters and Easterbrooks of this world.

Brown’s conclusion is straightforward enough:

…this disinformation campaign being funded by some American corporations is arguably some kind of new crime against humanity.

No doubt some will argue the billionaire’s corner, but it’s clear that the Koch and Scaife-funded attack on the science of climate is not “responsible scepticism”, it’s naked self-interest masquerading as policy. I have little doubt that the world will one day curse their names.

Note: Brown cites Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt as one source for his piece. Oreskes is giving lectures in Australia later this month. Details at Deltoid.